How To Conduct a Strip-Search
A top-to-bottom guide.
Photograph by Stephan Gladieu/Getty Images.
The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that officials can strip-search suspects for any arrest, however minor the offense, before admitting them to jail—even if there’s no reasonable suspicion that the individual has contraband. What’s the proper way to conduct a strip-search?
Start at the top and work your way down. Policies regarding the proper time and place for a strip-search vary from state to state and facility to facility, but they all prescribe the same basic procedure. The security officer takes the person to be strip-searched to a private place, asks him to remove his clothes, and then inspects each garment, one at a time, running fingers over any seams to make sure nothing has been sewn inside. Once the subject is naked, the search proceeds from top to bottom and front to back, with the officer giving instructions on what to do. First, he orders the subject to run his hands vigorously through his own hair, to show there’s nothing hidden on his scalp. Then he tells the subject to pull his ears forward and turn his head, to show there’s nothing tucked behind them. Next, he instructs the subject to tilt back his head to reveal the nostrils, and roll his tongue around in his mouth. He might also ask the subject to pull his lips away from his gums, and lift his arms to show there’s nothing in his armpits.
Then on to the torso and lower body. Female strip-search subjects are asked to lift up their breasts and open their legs. Men lift up their penises and scrotums, and, if they’re uncircumcised*, they pull back their foreskins. At this point the guard tells the subject to turn around, so they can start again at the top. Now the subject has to ruffle the back of his hair, and bend over with legs spread. The guard might say, “squat and cough,” with the aim of dislodging an object stored in the rectum or vagina. The strip-search ends with the subject’s being asked to show the bottoms of his feet.
It sounds like a lot, but with a normal, cooperative subject the procedure shouldn’t take more than about five minutes. A suspect with dreadlocks can be more difficult to search, since the hair-ruffling technique isn’t quite as straightforward. Those who are wheelchair-bound also pose special problems. Those who absolutely refuse to follow instructions, and whom the officer suspects of concealing contraband, may be tied down to a gurney.
To be clear, a strip-search is different from the more invasive “body cavity search,” which has an officer inserting his hand into the subject and is generally performed only as a last resort. If an individual is suspected of concealing contraband in his or her rectum, and a standard strip-search turns up nothing, there are a few different ways the officers may proceed. One option is to keep a suspect in isolation to see if he or she eventually excretes some unauthorized material. Another makes use of something called a “Body Orifice Security Scanner,” which works something like a metal detector for your nether parts.
Different kinds of security personnel learn how to conduct strip-searches in different ways. Federal corrections officers study and memorize the procedure at the Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga. After learning the basics as part of their three-week classroom training, they practice on mannequins or on other trainees (who remain fully clothed).
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Explainer thanks Chris Burke of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and James B. Wells of Eastern Kentucky University.
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Correction, April 4, 2012: A typo in the original article said "circumsized" instead of "uncircumsized." (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. He writes for Explainer and Brow Beat, and lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter.